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Everything '50s is hip again Cosmetic surgery and cocktails are helping keep Palm Springs eternal, Philippa Coates writes.

ONE OF the best things about crazy Los Angeles is that it's easy to escape. Two hours' drive from the city of angels, obscenely big cars and bad Botox jobs provide some of the best entertainment that travellers with limited time but a keen sense of adventure could want.

Direct flights to LA from Sydney take about 13 hours and then it's just a matter of picking up a hire car and heading out of town.

North up Highway 101 will take you to the pretty coastal town of Santa Barbara and its surrounding wine country made famous in the Oscar-winning movie Sideways.

Two hours south of LA will get you to San Diego, a more laid-back beach city with a Mexican influence.

But the real fun happens eastward. On a recent US sojourn, my husband and I steered our tinny Chevrolet rental along Highway 60, passing snow-capped mountains and massive wind energy farms on the way to Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley of the vast Sonoran Desert.

I should mention that we were childless. This made the exercise more fun, as a stopover in Palm Springs is all about being self-indulgent: hot mineral baths, cocktails, poolside lounging, perhaps some golf and shopping.

Palm Springs first became popular with stars such as Rudolph Valentino and Ginger Rogers in the 1920s and '30s, who lived under the two-hour rule of Hollywood's first studios. Back then, actors under contract had to be available within two hours on a studio's or director's whim.

In the 1950s, Frank Sinatra started a party in the desert that appears not to have ended. His arrival with rat packers Dean Martin, Sammy Davis jnr, Joey Bishop and Peter Lawford lured flocks of beautiful actresses, such as Lauren Bacall, Kim Novak and Jill St John.

It was just the place for celebrities seeking R&R after long stints of performing in nearby Las Vegas and for those who wanted to play away from the prying eyes of the media (privacy was respected to such an extent that Marilyn Monroe could lounge poolside, undisturbed, and Albert Einstein could watch the sun rise each day from his favourite park bench without being asked to explain it).

Then there were those who sought to "take the waters" in the town's natural mineral hot springs, which spawned an industry devoted to wellness and discreet cosmetic surgery.

What better place to wait for your swelling to go down than by a palm-fringed pool, dark glasses firmly in place, cocktail in hand?

It was a swell place to be. In fact, Palm Springs owes much to the likes of Sinatra, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Katharine Hepburn and many others, as the money they brought to the town gave architects free rein to develop a new style of elegant informal living. Combining clean lines and glass with natural materials and indoor and outdoor spaces, architects such as William Cody, Albert Frey, Richard Neutra and Donald Wexler created Desert Modernism, as the aesthetic came to be known, designing homes and commercial buildings that best suited the extreme desert climate while representing the last word in chic.

Sinatra's Twin Palms estate, with a grand-piano shaped swimming pool and cracked sink from when he hurled a champagne bottle at Ava Gardner, is available for rent from $US2150 ($2800) a night.

Like their ultra-chic homes, the rich owners epitomised American style and glamour. One of Palm Springs's attractions today is that visitors can sample 1950s-style sophistication too, thanks to an abundance of faithfully restored hotels and homes.

We stayed at the boutique Orbit In, which owns three properties: the Oasis, Hideaway and Wexler House, a luxurious 1955 post-and-beam glass house designed by Don Wexler, which is available for rent and sleeps eight. The Oasis and Hideaway are up the road from each other at the base of the imposing San Jacinto Mountains and a short stroll or cruiser bike ride to the village.

Designed in the motor court style, with nine ground-level rooms all facing the pool, the chichi Oasis and serenely cool Hideaway have mid-century designer furniture by Eames, Breuer, Saarinen and others.

Guests (affectionately addressed as Orbiteers) are encouraged to enjoy complimentary Orbitini cocktails and Californian wines at the Oasis' boomerang-shaped bar at sunset. This is a special time in the desert, when the light softens and the temperature eases and the coming night has so much potential. And bonus of all bonuses - no flies or mozzies! Not only that, but the joint has water. How ironic for a Sydneysider to be in a desert, yet surrounded by verdant lawns and gardens of tumbling bougainvillea, citrus trees and soaring palms.

One must-do tourist activity, no matter how short your stay, is the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway, located at the base of the Mount San Jacinto State Park, up the road from the town's visitors' centre. In 10 minutes you travel four kilometres from the tram's valley station to a 2596-metre-high mountain station (that's higher than Kosciuszko), passing through five life zones along the way, from the desert to an alpine wilderness.

We disembarked from the tramcar (the only one of its type that rotates 360 degrees) to an extraordinary snowscape. For the more organised - and especially those with more time - there are 87 kilometres of hiking or cross-country ski trails to explore. It's possible to hire toboggans and snowshoes and spend a fantastic day picnicking among the majestic fir trees.

An unexpected snow fight during our Easter trip to the desert was a real highlight. And the views are extraordinary.

A half century since its glory days, Palm Springs's retro vibe is luring California's hippest back, with celebrities such as Laura Dern and designer Tom Ford buying homes in town.

Everything '50s is hip again, so pick up an original atomic clock, lava lamp or some celebrity clothing cast-offs at any one of the fabulous vintage shops.

Homewares stores have opened, catering to renewed interest in mid-century modern design, and some of LA's coolest fashion designers have opened boutiques in town, with groovy styles that translate perfectly to the Australian summer.

But the shopping isn't limited to Palm Springs. Twenty minutes before you hit town, right on the highway, lies the biggest factory outlet mall I've ever seen. Every label and brand imaginable - think GAP, Guess, Gucci, Coach, Prada, Puma, Kenneth Cole, Donna Karan, Brooks Brothers, Tommy Hilfiger - are available with parking right out the front.

The discounts are outstanding, even factoring in the exchange rate, and it's an ideal place to do some last-minute gift shopping before heading back to crazy LA and, eventually, reality.

TRIP NOTES

Getting there: Qantas has three direct flights to LA from Sydney a day. The best time to see Palm Springs is September to May. Some hotels close in summer.

Accommodation: Rooms at Orbit In's Hideaway or Oasis start at $US169 ($220) a night, twin share. Phone +1 877 996 7248, see http://www.orbitin.com.

Tours: PSModerntours, $US55 ($71) a person. A 21/2-hour journey through the architecture and neighbourhoods that defined mid-century Palm Springs. See psmoderntours@aol.com or phone +1 760 318 6118.

Palm Springs Aerial Tramway: $US21.50 ($28) an adult. Phone +1 760 325 1391 or see http://www.pstramway.com.

Take The Waters: For $US35 ($45.50), spend as long as you want luxuriating at the Spa Casino Resort, which was built over the site of the town's mineral springs. The springs, once surrounded by palms, were a sacred site for the native Americans in the 1800s.

A spa routine includes wet and dry steam rooms, eucalyptus steam and the hot mineral spring baths, plus showers, quiet rooms, refreshments and robes.